For all the talk of diversity and inclusion, is the water and environmental management industry failing to recruit, support, remunerate and promote people of Black, Asian and other minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds? Karen Thomas reports
PALE, MALE AND stale – that’s the charge levelled at the water and environmental-management (WEM) industry. Look around any industry event – from conferences and exhibitions to meetings – and it’s hard to disagree. The audience, organising team and speakers are overwhelmingly white. As are WEM companies’ boards.
Mandatory gender pay-gap reporting has pushed many of the largest employers to tackle gender inequality. A revitalised climate movement is putting youth centre-stage. But is the WEM industry failing when it comes to ethnic diversity?
Companies that have fielded brilliant women and young people to talk to The Environment don’t want to talk about race and equality.
Asked to find a senior colleague to discuss BAME strategy, the PR for the large consultancy responded: “Thanks for the opportunity but on this occasion, given xxxxxxx’s diversity focus is more on gender than BAME, they feel there is not much they can bring to the table. Hope we can help on other things.”
In the UK, 13 per cent of people define their background as BAME. A recent Royal Academy of Engineering study found that 7.8 per cent of professional engineers come from BAME backgrounds – against 27 per cent of UK-domiciled engineering graduates. That suggests high drop-out rates among BAME graduates.
This report tried and failed to source WEM-specific data. So is our industry falling short in recruiting, supporting and promoting BAME talent? The Environment asked six senior industry figures.
Climate-risk consultant Bevan Jones started out in the third sector, which is “far more diverse” than private WEM or utility firms. “[WEM] doesn’t try very hard to diversify its recruitment,” he says.
Recently, a devolved government authority approached him through a BAME-specialist recruitment agency to fill a senior climate role. “The job wasn’t right for me,” Bevan recalls. “But in the end, they didn’t hire someone from a diverse ethnic background.
“We don’t operate positive discrimination in the UK – someone from my background cannot expect to be shortlisted because of their race. I’m honestly not sure whether that’s a good thing or not. But if, after all that, you don’t hire a Black or ethnic-minority person, maybe you should consider what structures you have in place.”
Greater London Authority senior policy officer Abby Crisostomo calls out “the myth of inclusivity” in recruitment. Proclaiming your D+I credentials is passive, she says. An active approach would look beyond the Russell Group universities, to seek talent from less privileged backgrounds.
Arcadis director for resilient cities Anusha Shah says WEM lacks board-level BAME role models to inspire and mentor young talent, creating a vicious circle – and yet the talent is out there. “We need to embrace change and champion BAME talent now.”
Once inside the WEM industry, BAME workers hit new barriers. Bernard Tausu is project manager for flood-water management at London’s Haringey Council. He laughs wearily as he lists the structural barriers that confront people of colour working in WEM.
One is a lack of champions, he agrees. Another is that industry recruitment and networks reflects back their own image – male, middle class, white – not the communities WEM serves. That reinforces barriers to diversity, he says. It also excludes valuable cultural knowledge of conservation, planting and managing water.
WEM industry management values networking and soft skills above technical or work-based excellence. When promoting, the typical industry manager again favours the candidate made in his own image. That again excludes BAME colleagues.
“I see unbelievable levels of frustration in the BAME community,” Shah agrees. “People are stuck doing the same thing – and doing it very well. But people who are brilliant at their jobs don’t progress because senior managers have decided they lack soft skills.”
It is particularly tricky to challenge bias that is obvious when you come up against it, to which the perpetrator is oblivious. At a recent international London summit, another speaker assumed Crisostomo was there to translate. “These things are rarely overt,” she says. “It’s death by a thousand cuts of micro-aggression.”
WEM needs better management training to tackle unconscious bias, says Mott MacDonald technical director flood risk Sun Yan Evans. Unconscious bias is bad for business, she says. If climate change threatens people of all cultures, communities and backgrounds, we need diversity to tackle the problem. “We need to unleash opportunities for all – so that everyone can benefit. It’s how we’ll make society better for everyone.”
Tokenism – having just the one very senior person of colour on the podium – doesn’t help, Crisostomo says. An active approach would seek out more BAME talent, lower down the career ladder.
Ex-banker and Green Party member Chidi Oti Obihara wants to tackle the WEM industry’s structural barriers. Inequality starts with privatised water companies putting returns to shareholders before their responsibilities to customers and community, he says. Private sector leaders have attended the same universities, the same schools.
“It’s about legacy systems,” he says. “Listed companies draw their finance teams from the Big Four accountancy firms. Select only from certain firms, certain universities and certain schools, that’s how these cultures evolve.
“We need to ask blunt questions about the discrimination this creates. We need a remutualisation of the WEM sector – more water and energy co-operatives. Only this will rebalance our industry to reflect the background and needs of those it most affects.”
Nothing will change, as long as “we keep parachuting old, white men into board-level jobs”, Shah says. She calls for positive discrimination – make sure half your intake is diverse; offer structured mentoring and support.
“That’s not blindly discriminating positively; it’s making sure we equip and create the frameworks to bring people from BAME backgrounds forward on merit. People need support to grasp opportunities,” she says.
Money is the elephant in the room. Tausu has interviewed for director-level jobs with major consultants, who’ve offered him far less than his skills and experience merit. “You get offered the job, but not the pay that goes with it – that’s so common,” he says. “Women of colour have it even worse.”
A government consultation on the BAME pay gap closed last January. The ethnic minority pay gap is at least as entrenched as the gender pay gap, Jones says. He wants to require companies to disclose their pay figures by ethnicity, too.
“Gender pay-gap reporting has offered a massive boost,” he says. “The rumour is, reporting the ethnic-minority pay gap is about to become mandatory. Companies won’t do anything until they have to. We are paid less in the sustainability sector – that’s a fact. But people don’t know it unless they are told.”
Employers and the media must highlight more diverse success stories, Tausu says, to inspire next-generation WEM professionals. And industry networks must work harder to become more diverse. Top WEM managers have everything to gain from mixing outside their usual circles – knowledge and valuable perspectives, he says.
Obihara says industry structures need to change. “People like me need to shout louder about these things. We try so hard to be helpful. We need to make our criticisms more explicit.”
We need to “move beyond tokenism and identity politics and stop tiptoeing around” issues of race, he concludes. “Structural racism is real. One, we need to identify it clearly. Two, we need to enforce the rules we have. Three, if necessary we need new rules.”